Sermon for Watchnight

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Ephesians 5:6-20; Luke 12:35-40

With thanks to Revd Dr Joanna Adams whose sermon formed the basis for my own thoughts  – original here.

Time.  This night of all nights, our eyes are on the clock.  We are counting the hours and minutes and seconds to midnight. As far as the year 2012 is concerned, time is running out.

In these dying moments of the old year, let us consider what the scriptures have to tell us about time.

Our first Bible reading began with these familiar words:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

And in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 5:15-16 we read:

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.

Some of us will be more familiar with the rendition of that verse in the King James Version:

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time

As Christians we are called to ‘redeem the time’, in other words to make the best use of the time we have. Sometimes we find ourselves saying “Where does the time go?” The answer is that time doesn’t go anywhere.  We are the ones who move through time and we move very quickly.  In the Bible, Job says “my days are swifter than a weaver’s beam.”  The time we have is limited and therefore precious, though sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As Tony Campolo remarked: “Clocks, with their revolving hands, create the illusion that time goes on forever. Hourglasses remind us that time is running out.”

So tonight, as we stand on the threshold of a new year we must consider what it means to ‘redeem the time’. But first I want to say a few words about Watchnight and what it is we are doing here this evening.

At first sight, the practice of keeping Watch on the last night of the year is a strange thing for Christians to do. After all, New Year is not a religious festival. It is not Christmas Day, Easter Sunday or Pentecost. There are no particular religious observances associated with New Year. So why are we here?

One of the reasons we are here is because it is our Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement, popularised the practice of Watchnight. Of course Wesley didn’t invent the Watchnight – he probably borrowed the idea from Moravian Christians – and saw it as being in the spirit of the night time vigils observed by early Christians, who in turn were imitating our Lord, who told his disciples to ‘watch and pray’.

So we are here in part because we are following in the footsteps of generations of Christians who travelled before us.

But as we gather here we are also aware that what we are doing is profoundly countercultural. This is not the way that most of our neighbours will be spending New Year’s Eve.  They would not understand why we have chosen to spend this evening in praise and prayer. By being here tonight we are saying that there is an alternative to the culture of our day and the way most people in our society choose to behave.

This was also one of the reasons that John Wesley encouraged the observance of  Watchnight.  The first Methodist Watchnights were organised by the coal mining community of Kingswood near Bristol. Before they were saved these men were known for their crude behaviour and drunkenness. Now the Watchnight provided a positive alternative. This is how John Wesley described one of those early watchnights:

“The Lord was gloriously present with us at the watch-night; so that my voice was lost in the cries of the people. After midnight, about a hundred of us walked home together, singing, and rejoicing, and praising God.” (Journal, March 12, 1742)

This sense of joy is conveyed in one of Charles Wesley’s hymns written especially for Watchnight:

Join, all ye ransomed sons of grace,
The holy joy prolong,
And shout to the Redeemer’s praise
A solemn midnight song.

Blessing, and thanks, and love, and might,
Be to our Jesus given,
Who turns our darkness into light,
Who turns our hell to heaven.

Thither our faithful souls he leads,
Thither he bids us rise,
With crowns of joy upon our heads,
To meet him in the skies.

To spend time in praise, prayer and worship: this is truly what it means to ‘redeem the time’. Indeed, Paul continues in chapter 5 of his letter to the Ephesians:

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So we are called to redeem the time – to make the most of every opportunity, every moment God has given us. One might think that this should be a simple thing to do. For we live in a society, a culture obsessed by time.

There are deadlines to meet, buses to catch, appointments to keep. Calendars and clocks have become our masters. Something has changed in the way we relate to time. Or perhaps as each of us gets older we come to appreciate time in a different way. So I was interested to come across the following comment by Joseph J. Mazzella:

My watch broke a few days ago. The band snapped without me noticing, causing it to fall to the floor while I was doing the laundry. As I stepped back to grab another armful of clothes I heard a nasty crunch underfoot. I picked up the watch face and saw a spider web of cracks overtop the now frozen hands. I could see at once that it was beyond repair and sadly tossed it in the garbage.

Strangely, now that it is gone I find that I have no wish to buy a new one. Perhaps it is because in this digital age clocks are everywhere. They are on my wall, in my car, on my computer, and even on my phone. I can’t even turn my head without seeing what time it is.

I think that the real reason, however, is that as I have grown older my relationship with time itself has changed. While my soul feels as young and ageless as ever, time in this world has gone by much too fast. The little puppy I once held in the palm of my hand is now an elderly dog with arthritis. The little baby boy I once rocked to sleep on my chest is now a 23 year old man who is bigger than me. Young, vibrant, and energetic adults from my childhood have now grown old, sickened and even passed away. I can see now that, in truth, time can’t be kept. It flows on and on and carries us with it on a river of change. The days zoom by, our hair grays, our skin wrinkles, and our bodies wear out. No amount of looking at our watches can slow it down. All we can do is embrace it and enjoy each day we are given.

Mazzella’s words echo those of the teacher of wisdom who was called in Hebrew Qohelet, or in Greek “Ecclesiastes”.

In today’s reading Ecclesiastes makes a list of the various seasons of life, 14 contrasting pairs, each one an undeniable part of human existence.

“A time to be born and a time to die”; Joanna Adams writes:

[Ecclesiastes] begins with what is most fundamentally true–that one day, we are born into this world, and just as inevitably, one day our life in this world will come to an end. The French composer Hector Berlioz once remarked, “Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”

Ecclesiastes would’ve agreed with that sentiment, though he might have objected to the adverb “unfortunately.” For him, things are the way they are, set in motion by God. The universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and order of seasons. Only God knows why existence is set up the way it is. In the face of an inscrutable world created by an inscrutable God, one should not waste energy railing against life; instead, Ecclesiastes advises, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live”

That is theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, it is wise to be happy and to look for joy.

In addition to not worrying about what we can’t control and enjoying the gifts God gives, Ecclesiastes’ other prescription for life is that always and forever we are to stand in awe before God, from whose mighty acts, nothing can be added or taken away. God is the creator of time.  God sets the rhythm of life –the time to mourn, the time to dance, the time to gather in and the time to let go.

Knowing what time it is differentiates the foolish from the wise. Some hold on for dear life to that which is actually finished and done. Some refuse to let go of a relationship that has ceased to be nourishing. Others try to breathe life into, say, a church program that has been around for too long, but no one is brave enough to bury it.

Perhaps where we go wrong is in trying to control time, trying to make time, rather than understanding the time that is now: this day that the Lord has made.

When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, he said, “The time is fulfilled.” In other words that moment, that ‘now’ was the time for God to act decisively, the time for his purpose and promises to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

And what of this now? As we hear Jesus’ words today, another ‘now’ is created: Now is the moment of our salvation. We stand at the threshold of a New Year filled, overflowing, with great divine possibility.

What the coming year holds for you and for me, for our community and nation, only God knows. Our response is to give thanks to God day by day for the time he has given us and to consider how we can redeem the time we have. And it starts right here and now: in prayer and praise, in solemn reflection about the year that has passed and what we made of it, in opening ourselves to the moving of God’s Spirit, in reaching out in love to our Christian brother and sister and our neighbour in their need.

As Joseph Mazzella concludes:

Earth isn’t meant for eternity – only Heaven is. Do your best then to spend each precious moment here in joy. Do your best to spend your days living, laughing, hugging, helping, praying, and smiling. Do your best to spend your seconds here loving God, yourself, and others. Do your best to make the passage of time on Earth a passageway to Heaven.

Sisters and brothers, as we enter into another year, may God bless you and bless you richly. Amen.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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